The films of John Carpenter - in order of importance
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
There'll be lots of shadowy figures zinging by the camera unexpectedly, so watch out...
With the revered, the (usually) excellent, the esteemed John Carpenter finally breaking his nine-year gaming session for The Ward (2010), here's where he got up to in his movie-making career when Ghosts Of Mars broke his stride - in the order that they get dusted and polished in my DVD collection.
[We'll be skipping the cult-director's non-directorial contributions, such as his writing gig on Irvin Kirshner's The Eyes Of Laura Mars, and television outings such as the excellent Elvis (1978) and Someone's Watching Me (1978)]
17: Ghosts Of Mars (2001)
A sad note to start on - the only film –along with the execrable Dreamcatcher - to ever actually send me to sleep in the cinema, this seems to be Carpenter’s third -and worst – bite at the siege scenario that he played out to acclaim in Assault On Precinct 13 and Prince Of Darkness. Natasha Henstridge is the cop investigating outbreaks of pirate-like madness at a Martian colony. The effects, script, acting and editing are truly abysmal (except for a fairly cool Martian train). This is that thing you forgive a good friend on account of the good times…
16: Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992)
Darryl Hannah and Chevy Chase in a dismissible but commercially successful tale of invisibility. More insubstantial than its concept and not as funny as it thinks it is. I guess it would help a lot to be a Chevy Chase fan. A John Carpenter fan can't rescue it.
15: Christine (1983)
The first of Carpenter’s two apologies for the commercial failure and revulsion-factor of The Thing, this is a straightforward telling of a Stephen King’s haunted-car potboiler. A relatively uninspired film of a relatively uninspired book (though Christine is Doctor Zhivago compared to some of King's later work). Cynical.
14: Village Of The Damned (1995)
Christopher Reeve’s last film before his horrific accident is a competent re-imagining of John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic The Midwich Cuckoos, with the scenario transferred to the unfortunately rather tree-less Southern California. Unusually lacking in atmosphere for a Carpenter flick, but the Hitler-Youth that emerges from a bizarre mass-impregnation by aliens are quite chilling, and there's a nasty torture scene with Kirstie Alley that's rather similar to the off-screen evisceration in Robocop 2.
13: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Having ‘done’ Clint in ENY, Kurt Russell takes on John Wayne as perhaps the least effective and least sensitive movie hero of the 1980s. Jack Burton, in a mad martial-arts fight-fest that is having far too much fun not to draw you in at least a little. Not my cup of tea, but .hey, we’re talking about Jack Burton here! Him! Jack Burton!
12: In The Mouth Of Madness (1995)
The closing third of Carpenter’s self-named ‘Apocalypse trilogy’ finds insurance investigator Sam Neill seeking Stephen King-esque writer Sutter Kane in order to retrieve a manuscript that could signal the end of the world. Focused, funny and well-paced, this garnered new critical respectability for Carpenter, though even inferior entries such as Memoirs Of An Invisible Man did better box-office.
11: The Fog (1980)
Inspired by a fog-bank at Stonehenge, this salty tale of ghost pirates wreaking revenge on a coastal community was making a box-office killing when Johnny Depp was flipping burgers. These guys should come for those who tackled the remake.
10: Dark Star (1974)
2001 with laughs and a lot less money, this is a seminal no-bucks student flick about a bunch of bored surfers in space. Co-creator Dan O’Bannon later remade it as Alien (1979), where H R Giger’s iconic beast was a bit more impressive than Dark Star’s beachball with plastic monster hands. Guerrilla film-making in space with appalling acting, but a late-night delight.
9: Prince Of Darkness (1987)
Carpenter manages to squeeze one more film out of Donald Pleasance in this painfully low-budget re-staging of Assault On Precinct 13 (with the devil and a church standing in for gang-members and a police-station). Man, Carpenter loves John Ford. Watching one of the 'possessed' disintegrate in a car park is one of the film's most memorable moments.
8: Escape From L.A. (1996)
Like The Thing, Carpenter’s second outing with Snake Plissken suffered from being ahead of its time; America is under right-wing government with a God-bothering prez who is actually corrupt to the core. With a few oblique jabs at Californian culture thrown in, this is a far better movie now than it was when it came out. Has some of the worst CGI ever seen in a mainstream movie, but Snake’s surfboard car-chase is one of the most joyously audacious moments in movie history. If Giler and HIll let Cameron re-envision Alien as a war movie, why can't Carpenter re-invent his own Escape From New York as a satire? It's a lot more fun than you've heard.
7: Starman (1984)
E.T. with sex, and an Oscar-nominated performance by the great Jeff Bridges as the alien/Christ figure trying to get home with the reluctant help of widow Karen Allen. A commercial and critical success that retains its poignant appeal. This completes Carpenter’s apology to the world for The Thing (the best film he ever made, but a box-office stink in the year of E.T., 1982).
6: Vampires (1998)
A solid vampire film with James Woods as a rather dark good guy pulling the undead out of their lairs and into the burning death of sunlight using car winches, all paid for by the catholic church. Maximilian Schell seems about four feet shorter than he was in The Black Hole but Twin Peaks’s Sheryl Lee continues her mad-eyed Laura Palmer routine effectively as a vampire-infected hooker, and the film is solid – but very bloody - fun throughout.
5: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
Possibly the slowest action thriller ever made, but an atmospheric siege flick nonetheless; among the first movies ever to break Hollywood’s golden rule about never killing cute kids (Day Of The Locust did it the same year, but with a really really annoying kid), in the infamous ‘ice cream truck’ scene.
4: Halloween (1978)
The original 'slasher' flick that kick-started the video-nasty era. Preceded only by the incomprehensible Black Christmas (1974), this is the reason Carpenter’s name was prepended to every film he made thereafter. So imitated as to now be a parody of itself, but we can't fault it for that.
3: They Live! (1988)
Tin-foil hats on! Ex-wrestler Roddy Piper makes his big-screen debut as the man with the sunglasses that reveal our world to be run by alien overlords intent on keeping us docile and repressed. If you can see past Piper’s mullet (don’t hurt your neck)and yet another low budget, this is a barbed criticism of lower-class poverty under Reaganomics. The fight scene between Piper and Thing veteran Keith David ran to a record-breaking six minutes. The Carpenter/Piper commentary on the DVD is as good as any of the Carpenter/Russell ones, if not even better.
2: Escape From New York (1981)
Apocalyptic mayhem on a budget, as Kurt Russell ‘Clints up’ to save the prez from a bunch of semi-armed New Romantics in prison-island Manhattan. Isaac Hayes and Donald Pleasance fight for scenery-chewing honours, Adrienne Barbeau follows her chest into each scene, and her then-husband Carpenter directs his way into enduring cult status. Currently the victim of an on/off remake. And yes, Ernest Borgnine is still alive.
1: The Thing (1982)
Along with Aliens (1986), the film that has most influenced the look of modern computer games. A shocking and bizarre gore-fest in the remotest location this side of the Nostromo, this paranoiac and fairly faithful version of John W Campbell’s creepy antarctic-based short story Who Goes There was Carpenter’s only 100% studio-funded film. A prescient commentary on the AIDS epidemic that followed three years after. One of the best (and creepiest) endings ever. Released around the same time as Blade Runner, it was to suffer the same fate: a box-office failure slowly followed by a creeping cult revival over the ensuing years.
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